Frost in the Swamp

November 6: On this day in 1894 twenty-year-old Robert Frost departed for the Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border. He was poor, jobless, unpublished, expelled from Dartmouth College and, pretty much for all of the above reasons, recently spurned by his high school sweetheart and chosen mate, Elinor White. Frost had just returned from visiting White at Lawrence College, unannounced but bearing gifts: the two homemade copies of his first, five-poem book of poetry, Twilight. White barely opened her door far enough to receive her copy, and Frost tore his edition to pieces as he left town. Traveling south by train and steamer, he was soon at the Swamp, and he embarked upon an unclear ten-mile walk into its soggy heart of darkness.

 

Our only account of what happened next comes from Frost's poem "Kitty Hawk," written sixty years later. Whatever plans he had to enjoy or end his dark thoughts were apparently overwhelmed by a series of social encounters with other Swampers. These included a convivial group of duck hunters, "Each and every one / Loaded with a gun / Or a demijohn," and  "a lone coast guard / On midnight patrol, / Who as of a sect / Asked about my soul...." Reclaimed by these dialogues, and bailed out by a train ticket sent by his mother, Frost returned home.

 

He immediately discovered that things had already brightened, poetically at least. On Nov. 8, just as he was taking his first steps into the Swamp, his first "professional" poem—"My Butterfly," one of the five in the Twilight book—was published in a New York newspaper. There was a romantic turnaround also: whether Elinor was encouraged by the publication of the poem (and the $15 that went with it) or moved by the testimonial of the trip to the Swamp, the two were reconciled immediately and married thirteen months later.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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